SPORTS

Field of Play: Heartland of the Prairie obsession

12/12/2014 06:40 EST | Updated 02/11/2015 05:59 EST
It's almost three degrees centigrade and the Friday morning sunrise heralds a sweet day in Saskatchewan.

Such mild temperatures are rare in December, but more than welcome in a place which lies about two hours northeast of the provincial capital of Regina.

In spite of the strangely exotic warm spell, people in this town flock to the more frigid familiarity of the ice rink.

I'm in Yorkton, deep in the heart of curling country, and the game is already reaching a fever pitch as it rounds into mid-season form.

At the Gallagher Centre where the Canadian Junior 'A' hockey champion Yorkton Terriers play their home games, the Grand Slam of Curling's Canadian Open has attracted the finest rock throwers on the face of the earth.

Included in the field are Olympic and World champions as well as winners of the Brier and the Scotties Tournament of Hearts. There are Swedish, Scottish, Swiss and above all, great Canadian superstars of a sport which seems designed to flourish in smaller, more intimate places just like this.

And there are fans, plenty of them as the 11th draw of the bonspiel gets rolling at 11 a.m. Bright yellow buses have rolled up to the front of the gleaming multi-sport complex to drop off legions of students.

Sport brings community together

They sit side-by-side with the elders of Yorkton and ring a multitude of cowbells when one of the favourites executes a deft takeout or a precise draw to the button.

"It's a part of our heritage," enthuses Karen Cottenie, a teacher at St. Michael's School. She's brought her Grade 6 and 8 classes here. She hopes they get a taste of the game at the highest level.

"It's a great opportunity and the kids are so excited," she continues."We have many immigrant children from Jamaica, the Philippines and Ukraine so the ice sports may be new to them. This is a way for them to connect with their new community. For others it's a chance for them to do what their grandparents have always done."

Gerald Shymko is a jovial and open man. He offers a giant-sized hand for me to shake as part of his welcome to the buzz that big-time sport is creating in his own backyard.

"It's still a small town and they still love curling, "Shymko glows.

Shymko himself is a bit of a celebrity here. In 1999, he got close to the final in the Canadian championship, known as the Brier. As the skip of Saskatchewan, he was hoping to be the first man from this province to win the coveted title since Rick Folk in 1980. He was outdone by Quebec's Guy Hemmings on a circus shot in the semi-final.

A love for curling

Shymko still embodies an endless enthusiasm for the appeal of curling in the breadbasket of the game.

"We have people who come from all around," he waves his hand as if to include them all. "We have old ladies who drive all the way from Melville and Pilot Butte and even Manitoba just to see the curling."

The curling....that's the way they lovingly refer to it here.

It's as if it's bred in the bone in Saskatchewan and it really doesn't matter who the players out on the ice happen to be.  It's the game they love.  

"It's a rite of passage," Cottenie concludes. "Everyone here has a famous relative that curled."

Karen's sister just happens to be Joan McCusker who won an Olympic gold medal with the late and legendary Sandra Schmirler at the Nagano games in 1998.

She too is a product of this endearing and age-old prairie obsession which will play itself out this weekend on Yorkton's frozen field of play.

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